WHAT WAS "MELANCHOLY"?

Today, melancholy means sad or "blue" but it used to have a broader meaning. It was a nonspecific illness term that lumped together depression with obsessions and compulsions, phobias, and other symptoms. Samuel Johnson, who published the first English dictionary, defined the term in 1755 this way:

MELANCHOLY.

1. A disease, supposed to proceed from a redundance of black bile; but it is better known to arise from too heavy and too viscid blood: its cure is in evacuation, nervous medicines, and powerful stimuli.

2. A kind of madness, in which the mind is always fixed on one object. [Here there is a Shakespearian quotation about melancholy.]

3. A gloomy, pensive, discontented temper. [More literary quotations here.]

From Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, edited by Anne McDermott (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996).

 

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